There’s still plenty we don’t know about the 2021 draft, but with the NBA and international leagues well underway and college basketball essentially at its midway point, it’s time for our first real mock draft of the season. Keep in mind, of course, that we’re in midst of a particularly unpredictable stretch of time due to the impact of COVID-19 and an unusually paced schedule. It’s still too early to write prospects off in any conclusive way. NBA teams are afforded the maximum amount of time to do their homework and dig into players. This season in particular, staying patient with struggling college freshmen adjusting to a new level and new circumstances feels prudent.
With all that in mind, based on what’s happened so far, it’s hard to say with any certainty that the 2021 draft is as deep and talented as many hoped a few months ago. A number of quality prospects near the top of this draft stand out, headlined by Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. But a recurring theme in my recent conversations with NBA scouts has been the general lack of definition to this class once you get beyond the first five players. There is a ton of room for the landscape to shift, and it always does. Teams seem to mostly view this class as top-heavy right now and are hoping for a strong middle tier of players to emerge over the next couple months.
As always, this mock draft incorporates intel and information from around the NBA, in addition to my own player evaluations, to try and paint a picture of what the draft might look like if it took place today. This is not a definitive ranking of prospects, although it should give some sense of which players are most squarely on the first-round radar. It’s a useful thought exercise at this point in time, but not a conclusive one, nor does it attempt to be.
To determine the draft sequence, I used FiveThirtyEight’s win projections entering Tuesday, Jan. 19. Of course, the team order isn’t of much consequence this early in the season. But in the process of doing the mock, when splitting hairs between prospects, a degree of situational need factors in.
1. Pistons: Cade Cunningham, PG, Oklahoma State
Height: 6' 8" | Weight: 220 | Age: 19 | Freshman
There’s not much reason for anyone to be concerned about Cunningham, who entered the season as the favorite for No. 1 and is the clear-cut top prospect from my perspective. Nothing we’ve seen from him to this point has shifted that stance. His rare combination of size, versatility, skill level and basketball IQ adds up to impact winning in an unusual way for a player his age. Cunningham continues to expand his game as a shooter and has shown some improvement scoring in the paint, as well. He’s has never played to rack up numbers or hunt accolades, but his teams have always won. Oklahoma State is much more relevant than anyone expected, and Cunningham’s effect is palpable.
I do expect there to be some difference of opinion around the NBA surrounding Cunningham’s long-term ceiling, due in part to his lack of explosiveness in tight spaces. It can take multiple viewings to really see the scope of things he does well. But this ultimately shouldn’t be a situation that hinges on which team has the pick. Cunningham is big and intelligent enough to be deployed creatively in a range of playmaking situations defend different positions.
In this scenario, if the Pistons were to win the lottery, Cunningham’s quality means having Killian Hayes already in the fold shouldn’t be prohibitive. As things stand, he’s the best piece available in this draft.
2. Kings: Evan Mobley, F/C, USC
Height: 7' 0" | Weight: 215 | Age: 19 | Freshman
If there’s a prospect who might ultimately challenge Cunningham in the eyes of NBA executives, it’s Mobley, who’s been quite good on whole for USC and profiles as a potential defensive anchor and all-around contributor. Mobley changes games with his elite length (7’ 5” wingspan), defensive instincts and above-average mobility, capable of covering a surprising amount of ground and altering shots most players have no business contesting. For a young shot blocker, he’s done a remarkable job avoiding foul trouble. Mobley is the rare big you can legitimately build a defense around, and he combines that with tangible offensive skill and growth potential.
While Mobley has never been the most aggressive offensive player dating back to high school, he can consistently do damage in a few different ways: He’ll be a threat to catching lobs, he’s improved his ability to face up smaller bigs and his jumper is mechanically pretty sound, allowing him to help space the floor for drivers. He’s a very good passer for his size, and as he adds more strength, his native offensive impact should tick upward. While you can’t really bank on Mobley becoming a No. 1 option, his defensive impact and basic strengths will give his team a lot to work with. He’s an excellent prospect, and the type of modern big you can win with.
The Kings are starved for help defensively, and Mobley would be a strong long-term fit who complements their core nicely.
3. Cavaliers: Jonathan Kuminga, F, G League Ignite
Height: 6' 8" | Weight: 220 | Age: 18
As a multitalented, athletic forward who can slash to the rim and defend a range of positions, Kuminga continues to track as a top five pick, and has acquitted himself well within the Ignite program thus far. He’s ready for the NBA from a physical perspective, with an ideal frame that can continue to add meaningful muscle. He can be a legitimate mismatch for slower bigs and smaller wings, allowing him to play either forward spot situationally and take guys to the basket. His offensive tendencies and skills are works in progress, and he has to get more comfortable playing through contact, but his upside as a starting-caliber forward is obvious. Kuminga isn’t a very creative player, but he does tend to stop the ball a lot, which can be a negative combination at times. The good thing is that most of his scoring stems from rim attempts and threes, which bodes well long-term from a shot selection standpoint.
Kuminga is still a project in those respects, but his defensive switchability gives a big boost to his floor, and if he continues to put in work and effort on that end, it’ll go a long way. The upcoming G League bubble will be a huge stage and test for him, given how limited the opportunities have been for NBA teams to see him play in structured settings.
The Cavs seem to be making a bit of progress with their roster, and pairing Kuminga with Isaac Okoro (while perhaps a tad redundant) would give them an athletic, defensive-minded pair of forwards to complement Darius Garland and Collin Sexton.
4. Warriors (via Wolves): Jalen Suggs, PG, Gonzaga
Height: 6' 4" | Weight: 205 | Age: 19 | Freshman
Suggs has been stellar in leading Gonzaga to an undefeated start and has played his way into this range of the draft accordingly. He’s a plus run-jump athlete by NBA standards, and his toughness, energy, playmaking skills and ability to attack the rim have him on a solid trajectory moving forward. Suggs projects as a plus defender at both guard spots, with strong anticipation and quick-twitch burst that help compensate for his lack of plus length. I do think there was a bit of an overreaction to Suggs’ hot start—his three-point shooting has predictably regressed to the mid-30% range, and he’s significantly more impactful in transition than against a set defense.